Book Theft

I’ve already related my armed robbery story, but in that case, no books were taken, only money. I say only, because in some cases, the books are more valuable than what may be in the till.

The stealing of book or books although not a common practice, occurred, more than we all liked to believe. Throughout the varied bookstores I worked, a few had experiences with theft. Starting with Lorry’s, the shoe was on the other foot, as, Ray, the manager, would buy stolen books from ‘book scouts.’ Did Ray absolutely positively know they were stolen? No. Was the conclusion we all came to regarding the book scout and his wares wrong? No again. It was common knowledge among bookshops at that time that people who ‘scouted’ for valuable or decent second hand books may be purveyors of purloined pieces. Our guy personified ‘shifty.’ The books bought were texts, used at the Pace University next door. The text book store, for a period of time, was owned by Lorry’s. So, any text that was brought in Lorry’s would transfer around the corner to Pace University Bookstore. How this gained a profit, I don’t know. I stayed away from anything underhanded, or, allegedly underhanded.

We had our share of shoplifters. Many were caught, probably some were not. As I relayed in another article, I seemed to have a radar sometimes, that indicated to me a crime was to be committed–and I caught the person who tried to hide tons of books under a coat. And some child tried walking out with a stack, pretending he was too young to understand, while the parent was distracting workers. The location down by City Hall and the sometimes deserted area was bait for the unsavory types, I’m sure.

At Foul Play, I didn’t find potential customers a threat, but one ‘bookseller’ had sticky fingers. Hard to pin down, the other manager and I tried, but without being able to frisk said person, we couldn’t prove it, one way or the other. But it was awfully odd how the number of books we had in stock would be matched one day, and after this individual worked, they were off a title or two. The situation resolved itself when the person didn’t show up one day.

The next time I was faced with theft at a bookstore I worked, I obviously had my radar turned off, or it had imploded somewhere along the years, because I never saw it coming. There had been discussion when I first arrived about a former manager having been accused of stealing, or being involved with stealing, a number of valuable books. This store sold wildly expensive titles as well as regular stock. I didn’t deal with the paperbacks, only new releases and some of the  rarer pieces. The issue was resolved regarding the manager, because the person was now working part time while I managed. It was a convoluted and odd story, not one that I understood, and I decided to mind my own business in regard to that and be on my toes so no one could accuse me of stealing anything at all.

The store closed at 7 pm and usually around a quarter of, the store emptied out, and I began the chores required to end the day. I would re-shelve, carry reserved titles to the area in the next room, and generally putter  back and forth around my desk, and, the glass case that sat directly in front of it, filled with thousand dollar rare editions. Which—-was unlocked. Yes, that’s what I wrote, it was kept by direction of the owner, unlocked.

A male customer came into the store, was genial, asked about a specific author, climbed the ladder and started perusing the books up top. I lingered around my desk, waiting, hoping he would finish, but he was intent, and I needed to finish my work, and he seemed like a typical nondescript customer. So, I went about my business, shelving in another area, filing invoices, and finally carrying a stack of reserved signed copies through the office door to the back. I stacked them at an even pace, made sure they were in the right area, and came back into the room. I couldn’t have been gone more than 60 seconds, maybe a tad more or less. The ladder guy was gone, which felt a little disconcerting, but I shrugged it off–people didn’t need to wait until I returned to say goodbye if they wanted to go. It was closing time, I finished my necessary work and went home.

The next morning, I was unsettled about the night before–so I decided I would check to make sure all the books in the glass case were still there. A little late, if they weren’t, but I was certain I was just being paranoid. I had to stare repeatedly at the empty space where a book should have been to finally get it through my befuddled brain that a book was indeed missing. This was not good. That being an incredible understatement. I couldn’t pin down what title was missing. It finally dawned on me it was the first edition in dust jacket Ian Fleming – Bond, James Bond. OMG. I was mortified. Not only had an over a thousand bucks book been stolen, it was on my watch, I allowed the guy to be alone in the room, and who’s to say I wasn’t making the entire story up about the guy? I may be accused not only of negligence but of stealing, or helping someone steal.

I was shaking when I brought the owner in to see the evidence of no book. I was distraught. Really really distraught. I had forgotten about the camera that was recording the areas of the store, upstairs, the library, the downstairs, and the hallway, all day long. I had told him to the best of my recollection what I believed occurred and the paperback manager downstairs confirmed there was a guy who left just at 7.00 with a wrapped package under his arm–he thought nothing of it, why should he have, or anyone have for that matter? It just wasn’t an every day occurrence for someone to blatantly steal a valuable book with only seconds to do it in.

The cameras picked up on the guy–he was on the ladder, just as I’d said, but the next time the camera’s swung around, he was no where to be seen, because after sweeping one area of the store, the tape would then sweep another, so everything was seen in bits and pieces. I was returning to my desk, and continued working in the next clip, and the only other glimpse of the thief was a quick shot of his back as he left the store downstairs. I was so upset I did the typical stupid female thing and cried.

The owner was an absolute gem, in this situation. He saw what had happened, realized it wasn’t my fault, that it could have even happened to him if he were at the desk, we all go in and out when customers are there, and he was upset over the loss, but not with me. He was absolutely fair. I’m not sure all owners would have been in the same situation. I slowly recovered my poise, and time marched on. No other thefts occurred on my watch, thank goodness, because he still didn’t lock the case!!

The last experience I had with the art of book snatching came at the last mystery store I worked, and it seemed somewhat worse, because it happened to be a lucky find by one of the booksellers. She had some how come across a first edition of Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell–a very very difficult book to find. Most are book clubs that people think are firsts, but when she brought it in to me, and I checked and checked my sources, it was indeed a first–but with major problems. The endpapers had been damaged extensively by water–so much so that anyone who had seen the book would recognize it immediately if they saw it again.

On a day I was off–I only worked a few days a week–the book that had been placed in a tall locked glass case, disappeared. Just like that! The worker was trusting the store to sell it for her, at a reduced price from what a fine in jacket would have been valued at, but still some nice coinage. And it was stolen. I was livid. As if it were my book! We finally pieced together what had happened. The manager had a rush of customers at the same time, and one wanted to see books in both cases, the one with the Postmortem, and the back case full of rare firsts too. Apparently, she didn’t re-lock before she headed over to the other case, and boom, someone grabbed it and whisked it away. When she recalled whom it was in the store, I pretty much new what had happened, but there was no way to prove it, none at all. A shady individual that many in the book world disliked intensely was hanging around. He owned a shop in Maryland. Many thought he was not only capable of theft but had been occupied in this activity many times. Although incensed, there wasn’t much I could do, and that just irked me no end.

My good bookseller friend was at an antiquarian book show in the Village of Manhattan when he called me at the store.

“Didn’t you say that a Postmortem with water damaged endpapers had been stolen out of the store?  Well, a copy fitting that description exactly, is at a booth here.”

I was down to the show in a flash–I was going anyway, but this was an even greater incentive. I found the booth, and the title, and casually opened it, checking the damage. No two rare first editions could possibly have the same kind of water damage, and I knew this was my fellow bookseller’s copy. But, what recourse is there to take? None. I couldn’t believe it, but how can one prove the book someone else has is stolen? Everyone I spoke to at the show, told me there wasn’t anything I could do. And that made me furious. If a camera was stolen from a department store, they  have the police investigate. Shoplifters are prosecuted–why couldn’t we grab a cop, and demand to see the booksellers providence proving where and how he acquired this particular copy? No one gave me any good answers. So I marched back up to the seller, asked him where he bought it, when he evaded the question, I told him outright it was a stolen copy, that I knew who it belonged to, and that I had plenty of witnesses that this book was hers. The damaged endpapers were definitive.

It didn’t do a damn thing. He blew me off! I spoke to my co-worker, trying to figure out how to move forward and get some justice for her–but she decided it wasn’t worth it to fight this out. I didn’t understand. I would have dragged the bookseller down to the local precinct by the hair, if it had been my book stolen and in his possession.

I wasn’t accusing the seller of stealing it, only of buying stolen goods, and if he had divulged who he bought it from, I would have gone after that person and nail them. But, clearly, this was not a favorable plan for the man who hoped to make his money back and then some. It was a losing proposition.

The only thing left I had, was to walk around the entire book show and announce that a stolen book was on sale at such and such’s booth. Which other booksellers discouraged me  on doing. Their reasoning–I couldn’t accuse anyone of such a thing without proof. And there was the catch 22. I can’t prove anything if the receiver of stolen goods won’t cooperate, and since he won’t cooperate, he can’t be accused of receiving stolen goods!

I didn’t care. I KNEW the truth, and he knew it too, clearly, and if the only recourse to gain any kind of satisfaction from a lousy rotten theft was to announce to this guy’s peers that he received stolen goods, or was even a thief himself, then that’s what I would do.

And I did.

He still had the book, but he was also known for a little period of time, as a suspect in a stolen book incident. Not much satisfaction, certainly my co-worker never got the book back, nor saw any money from it, the guy we think swiped it continued to run his shady store, and the manager was forgiven for shoddy security.

But at least I tried. And I would like to think, the bookseller with the book may think twice before buying books from the person who sold him hot property.

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  • Book theft! Arrgh!! The stuff of nightmares and food for simmering anger. I told you about the book of illustrations that had about 20 pages sliced out, right? So I checked out another book, similar to the first, and once again discovered pages had been sliced out. I’m not sure which is worse: not having a book at all or having it but a damaged one. We all know that s–t happens and can forgive most accidents, but theft???

    What a vividly told story about the thief on the ladder! I’m surprised that the owner in continued having the case unlocked – you’d think the insurance rates would be too high for that practice, especially after the first theft.
    And BTW, smart females cry, too!

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    • I’m not sure which I regard as worse–yes, maybe the defiling of tomes. Because with a stolen book, at least it stays intact, and theoretically is kept pristine by a collector. But someone who would slice pictures out of a book, has no regard for the entire piece as a whole.
      I have gotten into hot water with some, ‘altered art’ people when I berate them for using *original* plates or prints from books. Their cutting and gluing a plate that was once contained in a lovely Anne Anderson fairy tale book disgusts me. If the book is condemned, or other plates are missing, or loads of type is, then maybe I can see using stuff, but deliberately slicing perfectly fine books up for the valuable prints within to sell to unsuspecting, or fully cognizant customers on ebay, is beyond the comprehension of a book lover.

      These so called artists claim the work can’t be authentic otherwise! Oh yea, well then we had better slice some of Mona Lisa’s nose off for that classical piece you’re working on, or maybe cut out some of those stars from Van Gough’s famous painting, for that little altered art bookmark featuring classic stars you’re making! Ugh ugh ugh!

      I suppose because I work with thousands of vintage images and wouldn’t dreeeeeeeeeam of desecrating a title for some art project, even if I were a god given talent, I am prejudiced. I think scans and copies are perfectly fine to use. And they save books from becoming rarer and rarer.
      Hey, maybe I should write a little ranty thing on this?? LOL.

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      • My first thought is that the artists should be using repros and not thinking about authenticism of the thing they are altering. If their final piece is any good it shouldn’t matter if what they started with was the original plate, that’s just being defensive and justifying plagarism. (Plagarism? Not quite the right term but close.) But then I’ve never understood most altered art.
        I can understand someone deciding to take apart a book that is already falling to pieces and selling the art plates… I have some of those “fallen-apart” books myself, and they don’t even rate as a reading copy! More as a keep in a folder copy. And I suppose if I were to fall on hard times I would consider selling the plates as they would not be bought as a book for the same amount of money.
        I’d be curious to see if your rant (if you wrote one) had any reactions here and what they were, but as this is primarily a blog about selling books, there would probably be little to no response. Unless you have a bunch of artists who alter illustrated books lurking here!

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  • I was once in a slightly similar situation. Without going into the long and boring details, the corresponding action would be to pick up the book and walk away with it. Now the dealer in question has to call the police, and try to prove it is his book, tell where he got it, etc. The actual owner of the book no longer has to press charges, she just has to admit that, yes, this is the book – those end pages are the identifying marks, etc.

    As you described it, your position was weak, but if you pick up the book, say it is yours and refuse to relinquish it, the dealer is now in the weak position. Do you think he would call the police?

    If you can pull it off, it’s extremely satisfying.

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    • Oh Bob, I contemplated that course of action, I was sooooo tempted to just pick it up and walk away–I guess my puritanical background just wouldn’t let me, lol. Plus, I had informed so many dealers about it beforehand, it would be obvious if I just purloined it back. But I suppose that would be the only course of action that would have gotten it back for my co-worker.
      Now, had it been MY book stolen–righteous indignation would have overruled Mr. Puritan. LOL
      Thanks for you story–good to know others have faced the same dilemma.

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